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Project Spotlight: Building a Better Block with Better Block

This post is part of a blog series related to Dialogue 30, "The Livability Issue.”

At the edge of Dallas’ Bishop Arts District, what was once an unremarkable, unvisited concrete corner is now a lush, welcoming neighborhood hangout. The hub of this activity is the new Better Block headquarters. Part office, part co-working space, part venue and part maker-space, the new headquarters is a flexible collision of diverse programs, a synthesis of urban design experimentation and community hub.

Image © Gensler

Better Block is a 501©3 nonprofit known for what founder Jason Roberts calls “urban prototyping, or retrofitting of the built environment.” Better Block operates from the premise that anyone and everyone can be empowered to improve their neighborhood, streets, and urban context, with a little creative thinking and a lot of enthusiasm.

Images Courtesy of Better Block.

Comprised of a passionate team of guerrilla urbanists, the organization got its start with the first Better Block project: improving a blighted block in Oak Cliff, Dallas. Since then, some of their temporary businesses have become permanent, city rules have begun to change, and they’ve inspired a grassroots movement that now extends all over the world, from Melbourne to Tehran.

Image © Gensler

True to the DYI ethos that drives their brand and mission, Better Block required a multipurpose, flexible and aspirational office space that accommodated a fabrication lab/makerspace, office space, co-working space and “gathering ground” for urbanists and activists of all ages and backgrounds. Educational, experimental and communal, the desired aesthetic evoked the guerrilla urbanists who first inspired Jason on his travels. Juxtaposing gritty London punk with clean Scandinavian branding and design elements, the design allows for the Better Block crew to take ownership of their space and constantly adapt and experiment. We designed a formula for Better Block to create a better block through their headquarters.

Image © Gensler

Unlike our usual process, this project has no formal finish out, final photography or punch list. Empowered by their maker space to operate as their own contractor, the organization continues to design and build what they need, when they need it, within their current funds. A fab lab with a 3D printer, CNC router and a woodshop/workshop that continues to grow organically, along with a thirst to learn and strong relationships with local craftsmen and artisans, allows Better Block to keep building, designing, evolving and bettering their space. This process illustrates the essence of Better Block’s projects – and the essence of the design process: design as empowerment, and an instrumental catalyst of world change. Transforming the polished, inaccessible perception of “high design,” this ethos deliberately proves design to be a collaborative and non-linear process, and demonstrates that the impact is far greater when driven and owned by the passion of the user. It is this attitude that fuels the grassroots nature of Better Block’s organization: architecture as activism.

Image © Gensler

The relationship has yielded incredible rewards. Better Block has lent Gensler designers access to their Maker Space to build our winning Crowdus Street park installation and Gensler’s South Central Maker Meet toured the Better Block facilities. During the design process for the HQ, our digital media and PR team produced Instagram videos for Better Block. This relationship led to more filming and social media collaboration opportunities, including a video launching their new initiative: the Wikiblock Library, an open-source toolkit of digital designs for benches, chairs, planters, stages, kiosks and other street furniture, to be downloaded for free and taken to a local maker space to print, cut and build.

Partnering with local craftsmen, Better Block has opened their maker space to the community. The garage doors, whether corrugated steel doors opening to the Fab Lab, or glass-paned doors leading to the co-working space, are often raised. Constantly blurring boundaries—between coworkers, friends, family and neighborhood; between indoors and out; between work and life—the Better Block headquarters has become a gravitational center that brings organizations, missions and people of all backgrounds together into a heady, dynamic and highly energetic mix.

Images courtesy of Gensler and Better Block.

Better Block’s urban projects range a broad spectrum— from creating the Exchange House in Akron, Ohio to encourage positive cultural exchange between Akron’s refugee/immigrant communities and the larger public (look it up on Airbnb!) to empowering communities to improve their neighborhoods one street at a time, all over the world. At the heart of everything they do, they work with the belief that anyone can change the world. This headquarters serves as the home base for world-changing work, and the formula is simple: Learn. Dream. Create.

Read the full issue of Dialogue here.

Join the conversation: #dialogue30.

Chris Campbell is a designer in the Commercial Office Building practice area of the Work 3 studio in Gensler’s Dallas office. With a background in both architecture and interior design, he is a proponent of holistic design. As important to the built environment as architecture is to interior design and vice versa, he also believes design has two mutual sides: the thinking and the making. His clear and concise design concepts and priority towards craft in construction connect the two and emphasize the importance of both throughout the design process. Contact him at chris_campbell@gensler.com.
Sadia Quddus is part of the Texas PR team. Educated as an architect, she chose to follow her passion for expressing the beauty of thought that drives the design process. Paired with her curiosity and an insatiable love for people, her skills have equipped her well as a storyteller. Vulnerable to wanderlust, her broad international travel experience has engendered a healthy obsession to constantly seek and learn. She also really, really loves words. Contact her at sadia_quddus@gensler.com